SEA Scholar of the Month, June 2021: Timothy Sweet
How did you become interested in studying early American literature?
In grad school (in the 1980s), I took a course in American poetry and found many of the standard accounts unsatisfying: Anne Bradstreet as an inferior proto-Romantic or lyric poet; Edward Taylor as a would-be metaphysical or bad proto-modernist. It seemed like EAL was always apologizing for what it wasn’t. We were all reading Foucault at the time and an essay by Michael Clark in EAL enabled me to see that something else was going on here, something that modern lyric subjectivity couldn’t account for. That led to my first publication. Although I ended up writing a 19th-century dissertation and first book, I kept returning to EAL in various genres and have found it a really interesting field for the environmental humanities. The existence of the SEA as a community of scholars was an important factor in sustaining my work in the field.
Who is your favorite early American writer, or what is your favorite early American text, and why?
I like teaching early encounter literature (Harriot’s Briefe and True Report), Bradstreet, Wheatley, novels of the 1790s (The Coquette, Edgar Huntly), Bartram’s Travels, Apess and Black Hawk, and later historical fiction set in early America: Pioneers, Hope Leslie, etc. But if I had to name just one author, I would say Jefferson. I find the combination of brilliance, idealism, and moral failure fascinating and humbling.
What are you currently working on?
Extinction and the Human, a book about American extinction and endangerment narratives and the problem of human exceptionalism. Focusing on megafauna (mammoths, whales, buffalo), the chronology extends from 16th-century Mexico and Peru to the present day. Along the way I get to talk about Cotton Mather and Edward Taylor, indigenous stories about mammoths like the one transcribed in Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia, David Cusick, Joseph Nicolar, Moby-Dick, Linda Hogan, William Hornaday, Pawnee and Blackfoot buffalo stories, tribal buffalo projects and the controversy over a tribal whale hunt. It’s a sequel to American Georgics in the sense that it’s ecocriticism that engages fully with humankind’s role as environment shapers rather than assuming a fiction of pastoral harmony.
What is something you are reading right now (EAL related or otherwise) that inspires you, either personally or professionally?
I’m always inspired by Louise Erdrich’s novels and her latest, The Night Watchman, is no exception, for the way she presents Indigenous peoples and their histories.
Is there a scholar in the field who inspires you, and why?
I admire scholars who have brought new theoretical approaches to EAL: Michael Clark as I mentioned, Michael Warner, Dana Nelson, Elizabeth Dillon, or Monique Allewaert and Michael Ziser for new ecocritical approaches, just to name a few. Mainly though, I admire scholars such as my former students Amy Green, Jim Greene, Mariah Crilley, and Tabitha Lowery, who have persevered in academe despite an increasingly difficult job market.
Timothy Sweet is Eberly Family Distinguished Professor of American Literature in the Department of English at West Virginia University.